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Buyout Industry Staggers Under Weight of Debt

Celebrated buyout firms like the Blackstone Group and Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co., hailed only a year ago for their dealmaking prowess, are seeing their profits collapse as the credit crisis spreads through the financial markets.

Investors fear that some of the companies that these firms bought on credit could, like millions of American homeowners, begin to buckle under their heavy debts now that a recession seems almost certain. The buyout lords themselves suddenly confront multibillion-dollar losses on their investments.

On a day in which the stock market tumbled to its lowest point in two years and rumors flew that a major Wall Street firm might be in trouble, Blackstone said Monday that its profit had plunged. The firm said earnings tumbled 89 percent in the final three months of 2007 and warned that the deep freeze in the credit markets — and, by extension, in the private equity industry — was unlikely to thaw soon.

“They see the handwriting on the wall,” said Martin S. Fridson, a leading expert on junk bonds, said of buyout firms. “They’re staring into the jaws of hell.”

It is a major turn of events for Blackstone and its chief executive, Stephen A. Schwarzman, who took the firm public last year at the height of the buyout binge. On paper, Schwarzman has personally lost $3.9 billion as the price of Blackstone’s stock sank.

Even so, Schwarzman is still worth billions, more than rich enough to pledge $100 million to the New York Public Library, as he plans to do Tuesday.

Kissing the Earth Goodbye, In About 7.59 Billion Years

In the end, there will not even be fragments.

If nature is left to its own devices, about 7.59 billion years from now, Earth will be dragged from its orbit by an engorged red sun and spiral to a rapid vaporous death. That is according to new calculations by two astronomers: Klaus-Peter Schroeder of the University of Guanajuato in Mexico and Robert Connon Smith of the University of Sussex in England.

Their report, to be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, is the latest and gloomiest installment in a long-running debate about the fate of our planet. Only last year, the discovery of a giant planet orbiting the faint burned-out cinder of a star in Pegasus had suggested that Earth could survive the sun’s death.

Smith called the new forecast “a touch depressing” in a series of e-mail messages. But “looked at another way,” he added, “it is an incentive to do something about finding ways to leave our planet and colonize other areas in the galaxy.”

Earth’s basic problem is that the sun will gradually become larger and more luminous, according to widely held theories of stellar evolution. In its first 4.5 billion years, according to the models, the sun has already grown about 40 percent brighter.

Across the Country, High Courts Follow California’s Lead

The California Supreme Court is the most influential state court in the nation.

That’s not just talk. The numbers back it up.

A new study counted up the number of times the decisions of state high courts were followed in other states — in other words, how often one state’s decision played a direct role in shaping a decision elsewhere. That sort of citation analysis is a common measure of influence, and there is a cottage industry of rankings for judges, law professors, law reviews, law faculties and the like.

According to the study, published in December in the University of California, Davis, Law Review, the California Supreme Court won by a landslide.

In the 65 years ending in 2005, more than 24,000 state high court cases have been followed at least once. California leads with 1,260 decisions. Washington is next, with 942, and Colorado is third, with 848. New York comes in 10th and is only about half as influential as California, with 627 followed cases.

The Kentucky Supreme Court is the least influential high court in the nation, with 177 cases. The median was 453.

California also leads nationally if only cases followed three or more times are counted. The same goes for cases followed five or more times. In each category, California beats New York handily, by 160-39 for three or more followed cases and by 45-6 for five or more. The race has tightened a little, though, in the last 20 years.

South Korea Announces Woman As First Astronaut

South Korea announced Monday that a female bioengineering student will become its first astronaut when she blasts off on board Russia’s Soyuz rocket April 8 on a trip to the International Space Station that will be watched on television by millions of South Koreans.

The astronaut, Yi So-yeon, 29, was selected after the Russian space authorities accused the man who was initially chosen for the mission of breaking training rules.

While many South Koreans appeared disturbed by the last-minute switch, which saw their preferred candidate for the Russian mission rejected, women’s groups said Yi’s participation was likely to boost the rising status of women in South Korea’s traditionally male-dominated society.

The male astronaut she replaced, Ko San, a 30-year-old computer engineer, was initially selected in August for the mission after beating 36,000 contestants in a nationwide government competition in which almost any South Korean could apply. Yi, who came second in the competition, has been training with Ko in Russia as his backup since last year.